Lyn Romeo: adult social work in much stronger position since introduction of chief social worker role

Chief social worker for adults highlights improvements since she took up post in 2013, including growing workforce, impact of PSW role and increasing influence on policy

Lyn Romeo, chief social worker for adults
Photo: DHSC

Lyn Romeo has said that adult social work is in a much stronger position following the introduction of the chief social worker role, to which she was appointed more than five years ago.

In an interview with Community Care, Romeo said adult social work had gone from strength to strength since her appointment in 2013, despite operating in a “challenging environment”, and listed a number of forward strides made by the profession in recent years.

Romeo said an increase in the number of adult social workers employed by local authorities had been one of the main triumphs.

English councils employed 7% more adult social workers in 2017-18 than 2016-17, according to NHS Digital’s annual snapshot of the adult social services workforce, which showed staff numbers had risen from 14,155 to 15,145 – the highest the figure has been since records began in 2011.

The increase in adult social workers also triggered a drop in the vacancy rate, which fell from 10% to 8.3%.

Contribution to legislation

Greater involvement from social workers in policymaking was another improvement noted by Romeo, citing the profession’s contribution to the independent review of the Mental Health Act, which was published last December.

She said the secondment of social workers to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had been in crucial in building a “strong presence”, and made reference to Mark Trewin, who helped to develop recommendations for the MHA review.

Photo: Mark Trewin/Rethink

Trewin has been seconded from his role as mental health service manager at Bradford Council to become mental health social work lead at the DHSC.

Romeo described the implementation of the Care Act 2014 as a “big win”, stating that it had helped to bring about a “refocus on social work values”, particularly through the emphasis given to the principal social worker role in the Care Act statutory guidance.

Since the first adult PSWs were appointed in 2013, they have sought to provide practice leadership on social work across adults’ services departments, while providing a bridge between practitioners and senior managers in relation to practice and professional development.

In 2016, the Care Act statutory guidance was amended to say that local authorities should ensure PSWs are given the “credibility, authority and capacity” to provide effective leadership, and should maintain “close contact” with the director of adult social services.

Romeo said this had helped to guarantee the success of the role, with PSWs doing well to “firmly locate” practice leadership within adult social care.

She added that the role of adult PSWs had been more significant than that played by their colleagues in children’s social work.

“We may not have any social workers at senior management level within adult social care departments – directors of adult social services and adult directors may not come from a social work background – so the PSW role has been especially impactful in adult social care because it has really focused and ensured we have practice leadership with the adult social care departments.”

Benefits of PSW role

Romeo explained the presence of adult PSWs within local authorities had also helped to bring a social work voice to the table, leading to numerous benefits.

“PSWs have had a focus on ensuring a good continued professional development programme is in place and ensuring that issues around recruitment and retention are paid good attention… increasing, in many places, the proportion of qualified social workers in those departments.”

She also said PSWs’ contribution to the development of strengths-based practice. For example, the co-chair of the Adult Principal Social Worker Network, Tricia Pereira, recently co-wrote a handbook on strengths-based practice, published by the DHSC in February.

“They’ve made a big contribution to putting in a more strengths-based approach, reducing a lot of the process-driven, transactional bureaucracy that social workers were often caught up in.

“Instead, they have helped social workers, once again, to focus much more on the citizen and the carer and looking more to communities, so that’s helped them reclaim social work and social work practice.”

The increased importance of PSWs within local authorities was evidenced recently, as it was agreed at the ADASS Spring Seminar that PSWs would be extended membership to the association.

Romeo also highlighted the fact that Pereira and her fellow co-chair, Beverley Latania, were invited to speak at two sessions during the seminar, which is an annual gathering for directors and other senior leaders in adult social care.

Held back

However, despite the impact of PSWs within local authorities, a section of Romeo’s annual report, published in March, acknowledged that the role was “too often combined with other functions”.

In 2017, a survey by Daisy Bogg Consultancy found 62% of PSWs were in “hybrid roles”, often carrying out their PSW duties alongside management tasks. Moreover, three-quarters of those working in this way said they had no more than two days per week to dedicate to PSW work.

Romeo said it was key that PSWs were able to find the “right balance” between roles to able to continue to be effective and bring change.

PSWs were extended membership to ADASS last month

“It is important that PSWs are given enough time to perform their functions; sometimes that can mean giving the PSW some resources underneath them or have someone reporting to them, so they can do some of the more of the detailed work that is required to focus on reflective supervision or improving practice.”

“It’s about ensuring they have enough capacity to deliver the intentions.”

More work to do

Despite the progress made in strengthening the profession, Romeo identified areas for improvement, saying it was important that more research was conducted and that a stronger evidence base was built in order to design social work practice fit for the 21st century.

“[The sector] needs to get much more research mindedness and do more around social work effectiveness, for example, what works, what doesn’t work, stopping things that don’t work, making sure we’re really building on what people who use social work services.”

While a What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care has been set up – backed up with £23m from the Department for Education – to explore these questions in children’s social work, there has been no equivalent set up for adult social work.

However, DHSC commissioned a study from the James Lind Alliance to identify the top ten priorities for research in relation to adult social work, which was published in November 2018.

Since the report was published, DHSC has been working with the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to turn the priorities into research proposals. Romeo said these would be announced next year.

Yet Romeo said it was not only social work academics who would be responsible for improving social work practice, adding that Social Work England, which is due to replace the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) as the profession’s regulator later this year, would be a key player in shaping the future of the profession.

She strongly backed the creation of a bespoke regulator – as opposed to the HCPC, which covers multiple professions – saying it would bring a clear focus on the profession.

Social Work England recently consulted on its rules and standards, on registration, professional standards, social work education standards and fitness to practise, which set out proposed changes to the approach taken by the HCPC.

Avoiding long delays

Romeo said she hoped for a fresh approach to fitness to practise, which was “modern and facilitating”, with concerns dealt with in a much more “timely and appropriate way”, so that people weren’t left waiting for “long periods” to receive decisions.

According to figures published in the HCPC Fitness to Practise Annual Report 2018, the average time for cases to proceed from the receipt stage of a concern to the final hearing had increased from 16 to 21 months over the previous four years.

Although all professions covered by the HCPC were included in this calculation, social workers made up half of the fitness to practice concerns received by the HCPC in 2017-18.

Social Work England has said it wanted to avoid unnecessary hearings by giving independent case examiners the power to resolves cases without a hearing where the practitioner accepted the concerns and demonstrated that they had taken measures to improve their practice.

Examiners would be given the power to issue sanctions up to and including a suspension with the consent of the social worker concerned, but would not be able to remove people from the register; something that could only be carried out by panels of adjudicators following a hearing.

Practitioners have also raised concerns that the pressures and context of social work – including high caseloads and lack of management support- have not been sufficiently taken into account in HCPC decision making, and Romeo said she wanted to see this addressed by Social Work England.

“It’s about ensuring that employers have done what they need to do, it’s about understanding social workers and what the context is and the concerns about them, and dealing with them as promptly as possible”.

No concerns about SWE board

Attention had been drawn in recent weeks to the lack of registered social workers on the incoming regulator’s board, with critics saying the profession would not be around the table when decisions were made.

At present, chief executive Colum Conway is the only registered social worker on the board, though chair of the board Lord Patel is a qualified social worker. The rest of the board includes a finance professional, two NHS trust chairs and two people with a background in professional regulation.

Lord Kamlesh Patel

Lord Patel is one of two qualified social workers on the SWE board

Romeo said she understood why some people were disappointed by the lack of social work registrants on the board, but said the regulator had made efforts to include the views of the front line.

“[Board members] are there to govern the body to make sure that it is run well. However, the actual standards and consultations on the standards and the development of them and applying them is for the wider sector to be involved in, with the regulator.”

She added that there was also an advisory group, composed of “key social work leaders and practitioners”, that had been helping to capture the thoughts and opinions of frontline practitioners.

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10 Responses to Lyn Romeo: adult social work in much stronger position since introduction of chief social worker role

  1. Colin Slasberg May 16, 2019 at 2:12 pm #

    There are some very serious questions about what the PSW’s are doing before any assumptions can be made about their impact. Last year, after 10 years of austerity, spending matched budgets precisely and, crucially, left absolutely no unmet need in the wake; the 10% top spending councils spent twice per service user as the lowest 10% (allowing for regional price differences); the councils serving the 10% wealthiest communities spent 25% more per service user than the councils serving the 10% most deprived; the majority of service users and carers believe their views of their needs play little part in the decisions about them. These are the hallmarks of the resource led approach to need of the infamous eligibility process. It works by the system commandeering the professional judgements of practitioners so that ‘need’ delivers the financial imperatives. So what are the PSW’s actually doing? Are they really promoting the interests of service users and social work as a skilled profession that empowers service users and pursues social justice? Or are they serving the interests of management that demands the acquiescence of practitioners to keep spending under control while denying true need? The evidence surely creates a very clear case they have to answer.

  2. Jane Francis May 17, 2019 at 3:29 pm #

    Do is there a chief sw for children as well? Children’s services are struggling possibly more than adult services.

    • Ruth Cartwright May 23, 2019 at 2:23 pm #

      There is a Chief Social Worker for Children appointed at the same time as the one for Adults. Her name is Isabelle Trowler. Interesting that she hasn’t done anything that you’ve noticed ….

  3. Bob Ford May 17, 2019 at 5:32 pm #

    Other than the first sentence in Colin’s comment I’m not sure the rest of his personal concerns are directly related to PSWs. My experience is that they are working hard on and above the areas of their role and tackling the very issues Colin makes. But maybe not as he thinks they should.

    This is a good article and shows where effort is being made to regain ground that has been list. Ground that if you just listened to certain voices, some academics, SWAN etc will be lost very quickly as they constantly try to get one up on anyone else who dares to not agree with their view or just does their job well

    It’s tough enough being a social worker without having to fe criticised because people think they know better. Be good to focus on wider issue for once.

    • Colin Slasberg May 20, 2019 at 8:11 am #

      Bob, 10 years ago there were people who said that the personal budget strategy through up-front allocations wouldn’t work. There were personally attacked as ‘nay sayers’ (and worse) so their actual arguments would not be heard. Whatever you thought 10 years ago, perhaps you will agree the ‘nay sayers’ were right. Talk of consumerist choice as the route to getting support right has fallen away as talk of skilled practice as the route has risen. You are at risk of repeating history. You are making a person attack on me as wanting to get one up rather than address the issues. I believe the PSW role is potentially of enormous value, as is the increase in social work numbers. But they have to get it right. I implore you to look at the evidence, not at me, and address the questions. Lets not waste another decade or worse, lose the plot altogether.

  4. Blair Mcpherson May 17, 2019 at 8:43 pm #

    ‘Much stronger position”, “more influence” ! Austerity was and is the policy, a policy that has seriously undermined social workers professional values. Stronger and more influential with a chief social worker than with out or just a sop to social workers to make them think a government is interested in their views and influenced by them.

  5. Lola May 19, 2019 at 10:07 pm #

    Well the ‘chief social worker’ would congratulate herself and say that adult social work is in a much stronger position since the introduction of chief social worker role!. She is clearly out of touch with the reality of adults social work. The majority of adults social workers are stressed and demoralised from working in organisations which operate a bullying culture. Have unmanageable high caseloads and whose job now only exists to cut resources and exclude as many individuals as possible from accessing the service. And, god forbid they are unable to cope because the HCPC will hang them out to dry.

  6. James Mathews May 20, 2019 at 6:37 am #

    What a bizarre article. Completely navel gazing.
    Stop spending time writing about how well you’ve done and get back to actually challenging the government and ineffective local authorities. Actually lead.

  7. A Man Called Horse May 21, 2019 at 5:08 pm #

    Austerity has gutted out Social Work in both Adults and Childrens Services. Social Workers in both are stressed unrepresented and feel constantly monitored to the point that many want to quit altogether. Social Work is not respected it is underpaid and we have no one representing us as workers. Meanwhile we are paid badly and have suffered real term paycuts due to Tory Austerity. The Chief Social Worker is not representing me on the issues that matter and she needs to get out of her office more often and actually stop telling us how good she is.

  8. Blair Mcpherson May 23, 2019 at 4:04 pm #

    Does Lyn Romeo include people with learning disabilities in her statement about the stronger more influential position that adult social work is in since the establishment of a chief social worker post? With reference to the CQC report on restraint and last nights Panorama program.